An article in the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly lamented the possibility that American television would soon be without soap operas if the trend toward canceling them continued much longer. A sad image lurked above of tombstones of shows canceled in the last twenty or so years. The entire article is devoted to describing the path that the shows have taken to getting canceled, starting in the early 1990s and ending with Guiding Light and As the World Turns getting canceled.
The problem with the article is that it simply placed the blame of shows getting canceled on people’s reluctance to watch a program that is on in the early afternoon rather than some of the more profound things that are desperately wrong with the way that soaps are written, produced, and created in the United States. I have previously written about the predicament, being all lathered up over American soaps — this was nearly five years ago, and I have spent a lot of time watching British soap operas since then. Here’s what I have come to realize.
There are about a dozen or so things that happen on soap operas in the United States. A friend of mine listed them quite succinctly and I couldn’t help but agree with him. Watch any American soap and eventually they will come back around to baby switches, twins, mistaken paternity, kidnapping, useless ‘quests’ for treasures, and of course — the shallow pursuit of love.
The reason I refer to it as so shallow is simple. Pick up an issue of Soap Opera digest and see who is paired up on The Young and the Restless. I guarantee you that none of those people will be still together six months from now. You can almost draw diagonal lines between people and guess with some accuracy who will end up together. This is not the case on British soaps.
The timing issue might have some relevancy but I don’t think it is as important as the writer of this article makes it out to be. There are DVRs which allow you to watch any show at any time. There is also a dedicated cable channel that shows the same shows in the evening. Needless to say, there are ample ways for people to see the shows. In Britain, the soap operas air in the evening — this makes more sense to me as it allows housespouse and working spouse to enjoy their shows together and has done for as long as the shows have been on in England.
My favorite show right now, EastEnders, deals with hard hitting issues that people confront every day. It’s not about someone’s twin sister coming to spook them out of their family fortunes, it’s about the working class mother struggling at the flower shop when she realizes that her daughter suffers from the same sort of Bipolar disorder that haunts her. It’s about people trying to raise a daughter with Down Syndrome and the reality that some people just can’t cope with it and would rather give up a baby for adoption rather than try to work out the issues.
Most characters I continue to see on American soaps remain wealthy well beyond the means of average Americans. I don’t understand how anyone can watch the shows and think, “I’m just like them!” When you watch a show like EastEnders, you see common, hardworking people who spend their days at hard jobs and spend a few hours relaxing after work before hitting the sack and getting up in the morning to start over again.
It’s not just the issues, though. The drama on American soaps just isn’t depicted nearly as well as it is on British soaps. Look at this clip from EastEnders:
Not only is it suspenseful but you really feel for the characters. You don’t know how it’s going to end until it does and there’s not a cheap trick in the book in this clip or the show in general.
Perhaps if American producers are really interested in saving soaps, they should watch a few hundred hours of a show like EastEnders and get a feel for what they’re doing wrong.